Dissertation Discussion: Jamie

Aubrey Beardsley, cover for The Yellow Book, Volume III, 1894. British Library. Photo by Jamie Vaught.

What is your title?

Decadence, Defiance, Death: The Last Years of Aesthetic Dress

What prompted you to choose this topic?

While studying dress reform as an undergraduate, I became enamored with Aesthetic dress, an alternative style of clothing adopted by followers of British Aestheticism primarily during the late-1870s and early-1880s. Female Aesthetes channeled medieval, Greek, and pastoral styles in muted-color dresses outfitted with puffed sleeves, straight, trained skirts, and unconstricted waists. As I researched, I was surprised to discover that very little scholarly work had been done on Aesthetic dress in the 1890s. This dissertation allowed me to explore that last decade of this style and the impact Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial had on its reception. More specifically, I examined how three groups interpreted Aesthetic dress through extremely different ideals of womanhood, as elucidated in their respective writing and illustrations: Decadents (The Yellow Book, The Savoy, and the works of Wilde), artistic reformers (Aglaia and The Queen), and department stores (The Queen and Liberty catalogues).

Liberty gowns drew heavily from historical dress. In this ad, the cut of the coat resembles the Empire period, while the tea gown is very medieval. Detail from a Liberty & Co. ad in The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper, 3 June 1899, Vol 106. Courtesy of the British Library.

Most interesting research find so far?

I have found some absolutely odd gems during my exploration of Queen, including an embroidery pattern of a duck wearing a robe à la polonaise, yearly coverage of the Crystal Palace cat show, and a story on the flammability of dresses in the home. My all-time favorite line of text was from the 22 May 1897 installment of ‘Vista of Fashion’ in which author Mrs. Aria begins the article, ‘“GIVE ME FROCKS,” I cried, as I rushed up the stairs.’ I aspire to enter every clothing store this way from now until my last day.

Of all my research, Max Beerbohm’s satirical essay ‘1880,’ published in the fourth issue of the The Yellow Book (1895), left the greatest impression on me. Its tone when discussing the Aesthetic Craze is simultaneously mocking and maudlin; Beerbohm’s observations are truths with a bite to them. This sentimentality affected me considerably. After working on Aesthetic dress for two years, I have grown very attached to that elite coterie’s eccentric cast of characters and do sometimes wish I could experience what it was like to live among them. One passage in the essay stuck out to me the most:

‘All Fashion came to marvel and so did all the Aesthetes…Fairer than the mummers, it may be, were the ladies who sat and watched them from the lawn. All of them wore jerseys and tied-back skirts. Zulu hats shaded their eyes from the sun. Bangles shimmered upon their wrists. And the gentlemen wore light frock-coats and light top-hats with black bands. And the aesthetes were in velveteen, carrying lilies.’

I will admit to shedding a tear in the middle of a British Library Reading Room when I read that final sentence.

These four figures are examples of Greek-inspired dress designs in Aglaia, the journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union. Straight, flowing skirts epitomize the loose styles advocated by artistic reformers, and the sleeves are a less exaggerated version of the gigot sleeve fashionable in the mid-1890s. ‘The Empire Dress’ from Aglaia No. 1, July 1893, page 35. Courtesy of Senate House Library.

Favorite place to work?

I only really work in three places: the Book Library, the British Library (most often in the Newsroom), and a café near the Courtauld. I am most productive in the last, since jazz standards and the customers’ soft conversations give me writing tunnel vision. And the baristas are great­–they start preparing my usual breakfast, black tea and a blueberry muffin, as soon as I walk through the door!

My cafe workspace, complete with laptop, notebook, draft, and tea.